Tokyo is one of the world’s few great cities that you can walk around in the middle of the night in almost complete safety. That’s not to say walking around for the sake of it will be viewed without suspicion. Drunk office workers making their way home, fitness freaks and dog-walkers are not too unusual a sight in the darkness, but they only reinforce the fact that the city at night is something to be traversed, rather than appreciated.
Tokihiro Sato came to prominence as an artist in the early 1990s, earning plaudits around the world for his series “Photo-Respiration.” Using a penlight at night and a mirror during the day, the photographs in this series show trails or spots of light in darkened landscapes, of which probably the most audacious are scenes of central Tokyo. With long exposures of up to three hours, normally busy streets and city vistas become host to a multitude of flowing lines or dozens of orbs that recede from the foreground deep into the distance. As a side-effect of Sato’s method, both highly public and liminal spaces alike are shown devoid of people and traffic.
While the lights trace Sato’s movement in time and space, some images can appear as more anthropomorphic than others. One iconic interior shot of strings of light filling a stairwell is strongly reminiscent of Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase No.2,” while rocky seascapes in Iwate Prefecture look like experiments in spirit photography. In other cases Sato’s training as a sculptor shows through, with objects redefined as glowing auras, and empty spaces given mass by webs of light trails.
Leaving the city and the sea behind, later works in the “Photo-Respiration” series center around snow and trees, and Sato hints that while in the forest producing these images he empathized with the pantheism of Shinto and the act of worshipping natural objects. Indeed it’s hard to imagine an artist from a culture other than Japan’s producing this particular blend of technical precision, intimation of the spiritual, and loving regard of the natural world that can be seen in these images.
Originally created from the late ’80s onward, “Photo-Respiration” has been digitally reprinted, enabling the production of massive photographs that would have been nearly impossible to produce in the darkroom. Traditionalists may miss the deep lustre and shadow of silver gelatine prints, and, much like the difference between in-camera special effects and CGI, the images have an inhuman perfection that it’s hard not to feel at least a little uneasy about.
The development of Sato’s work is, by and large, shown in chronological order as you work your way through the show. The series that follows “Photo-Respiration” sees Sato giving up the light trail and the precision of large-format film for experimentation with jury-rigged pinhole cameras and multiple viewpoints.
“Gleaning Lights 1” and “2” are experimentations with placing several “low-quality” images together, and the contrast with the controlled aestheticism of “Photo-Respiration” is striking. Sato throws worries about composition, focus and flare out the window to produce a variety of very different images in these two series, which include large installations of several discrete images, smaller composite photos and mural-sized digital panoramas. The photographer and camera apparatus are sometimes visible in these photographs, and while they may not be as seductive as “Photo-Respiration” — the panoramas in retrospect look a lot like someone trying out a new feature on their smartphone — the radical change in approach is impressive.
The final third of the exhibition is taken up with two camera obscura projects, “Wandering Camera 1” and “2.” Questioning whether there is a place in our consciousness in which our sense of self, nation and age reside, Sato’s first iteration of “Wandering Camera” involved creating a trailer/camera obscura and driving it the length of Japan for the general public to pop into it wherever it stopped. Only two photographs are shown from this project, so it’s not clear how successful it was.
“Wandering Camera 2,” however, has some of the most striking images in the exhibition. The camera obscura in this case was a tent, and beautifully rendered photographic images show us the blurred “live” view outside, projected onto the sharply focused ground; sometimes a sandy beach pathetically strewn with rubbish, sometimes the cracked asphalt of a car park. In several of the images the passage of the sun leaves a light trail above the sea, and in others we see remnants of the 2011 tsunami that followed the Great East Japan Earthquake.
The final two images in this series are an intriguing twist on perhaps Japan’s most venerable natural icon (to say what it is would be to spoil the effect for the viewer). Is Sato suggesting that the space of national identity is a distorted image projected onto the reality of the physical world? Probably not, but the reading is there if you want to take it.
“Sato Tokihiro: Presence or Absence” at Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography runs till July 13; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Thu., Fri. till 8 p.m.). ¥700. Closed Mon. www.syabi.com